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Sep 4, 2017 2:47 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Queen Esther Marrow Will Kick Off Tour September 15 In Southampton Village

Queen Esther Marrow
Sep 5, 2017 10:48 AM

There was never a time when Queen Esther Marrow didn’t know racism. It had a face, and it had a voice. Segregation was as normal as skipping down the lane to pick up the mail.

Except she skipped while singing at the top of her lungs.

She would grow into her voice and move away from the Virginia countryside, to New York. It was a city that first embraced her, and then discovered her.

Half a century later, at 76 years old, she is kicking off her national tour, “Here’s to Life,” on Friday, September 15, at the Southampton Cultural Center—and she can’t help but reflect on that life.

It has taken her to stages around the globe—from Paris to Vienna, from Madrid to London, Berlin and Rome—which she shared with the likes of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and B.B. King. Her voice was heard on Broadway, in television and film, and, during the 1960s, it thrust her into the heart of the civil rights movement.

“Who would’ve thought a pudgy girl from Warwick County, fighting for equal rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, singing for the pope and three presidents, traveling the world?” Ms. Marrow said. “Not me.”

At age 22, Ms. Marrow would get her big break. She was standing in Duke Ellington’s living room, auditioning for his Sacred Concert tour. After one show, he brought her on board, finishing out the Midwest and over to Europe.

“And that was the beginning of my career,” she said. “After working with Duke, I went out on tour with Harry Belafonte—and that’s how I met Dr. King. We went on tour with him. I got to know him personally. He was a wonderful, kind, gentle man.”

They traveled the country together, from rally to rally, protest to protest. During the 1966 Freedom Festival in Chicago, Ms. Marrow found herself on stage with Dr. King and Mr. Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Dick Gregory, and her idol, Mahalia Jackson.

“She beckoned for me to come and stand beside her, and we sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ together. Talking about it now, I get goosebumps. It was the greatest moment in my life,” Ms. Marrow said.

“We were all around the podium together, and he was speaking, and we sang, and we were there for the people and to speak to the people—saying that we must come together in unity and we must join and fight this segregation, and do it in a peaceful way.”

Two years later, Dr. King would be assassinated. It was devastating, Ms. Marrow said, and to this day, “no one has filled his shoes.” With strides in social progress, his message and movement faded away, she said.

“Everyone thought everything is fine, but, as you can see, it’s not,” she said. “It just so happens that the man we have in the office now has inspired that demon to raise up again and come out with all these negative, hateful things that are being said and done to people. And that disturbs me deeply, because we have gone back. We have gone back in time.

“I thought we were progressing and we were moving ahead, and here I am living in a place I really despised at one time because of the hate that was here, and here we are, going right back to it,” she continued. “And I see it and it’s not good. It doesn’t feel good. You go to a restaurant and there’s someone sitting with a gun on his side, and you’re getting smirks when you go in stores, you’re getting evil looks, you’re getting insults when you’re driving along. It’s sad. It’s sad.”

She sighed into the telephone, hundreds of miles away from the East End at her home in Newport News, Virginia—which was once Warwick County, and her childhood home. There, racism still has a face and a voice.

But so does she.

“We can’t let the politicians destroy us. If we come together and say, ‘No, we don’t want this—we have got to fight,’ and we fight with love, we stand up for what’s right, we can make a difference. I believe that.”

Queen Esther Marrow will kick off her U.S. tour, “Here’s To Life,” on Friday, September 15, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Tickets are $25, or $15 for students. For more information, call 631-287-4377, or visit scc-arts.org.

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